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Obituary: Tewelde Berhan Gebre Egzeabher: A scientist larger than life

Tewelde Berhan Gebre Egzeabher (PhD) dies at 83 (Photo: Right Livelihood)

By Molla Mitiku @MollaAyenew

Addis Abeba – Beyond his achievements in academia both at Addis Abeba and Asmara Universities as a lecturer, dean and a president respectively, the worldwide renowned biodiversity scientist, Tewelde Berhan Gebre Egzeabher (PhD), was known for his impact in bettering the livelihood and community rights in the African continent and farmers around the world.

Family and intimate friends of Tewelde announced his passing away on 20 March. He was 83. His death triggered overwhelming messages of condolences from around the country. It is a loss of a celebrated scientist.

Family and schooling

Tewolde Berhan was born on 19 February 1940 at Adi-Salam, a small village near Adwa town in the Tigray Region, northern Ethiopia. As his father and mother were devout church goers, they bad special attention about educating their children that enabled Tewolde Berhan to become fluent in Ge’ez, Amharic and his mother tongue, Tigrinya, even before his enrollment in a formal education. He had attended his education at Negeste Saba Elementary School from 1951 to 1955 and General Wingate Secondary School from 1955 to 1959 in Addis Abeba.

According to his biography published on the United Nations Environment Protection Website, he won the Chancellor’s gold medal which was given for best performing university students when he graduated from AAU Faculty of Science. He continued his education abroad and studied for his third degree from 1966 to 1969 and was awarded a PhD at the School of Plant Biology, University of North Wales in the United Kingdom with a doctorate in plant ecology.

The late scientist had three children from his late wife Sue Edwards, who passed away five years ago at the age of 76. Born on 14 June 1942 in Dartford, Kent, Sue Edwards was the prominent British-Ethiopian botanist and environmentalist who came to Ethiopia in 1968 and had served at the Institute of Agricultural Research and lecturing at Addis Abeba University for many years. She had made massive contribution to botany where she devoted some 29 years to accomplish the field collection of herbaria and editing the 8 volume, 9000 species rich Flora of Ethiopia and Eritrea. Sue was also an active participant in sustainable agricultural practices and land reclamation in aid of farming communities and won international awards like the National Green Awards (2007), Gothenburg Award and One World Lifetime Achievement Award (2017).

The power couple worked for biodiversity and supported peasants in their struggle for a decent livelihood.  Sue was also engaged in the activities of her scientist husband at the national and international level.

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These two renowned scientists are survived by their three daughters who are also of high caliber. Sarah Tewelde Berhan (PhD), is a lecturer at Mekelle University College of Agriculture, Meron Tewelde Berhan is a novelist, and Lemlem Tewelde Berhan (PhD), is a paediatric doctor residing in London.

Ethiopia’s biodiversity negotiator

According to his colleagues, the academic contributions of Tewelde Berhan were so immense that he served as an instructor and dean at Addis Abeba University (AAU) and as a president of Asmara University. He played a key role in launching the Ethiopian Flora Project with the aim of developing a national capacity in “plant systematic and a competent national institution for research and services in this field.” He had also a success story in negotiating a substantial grant for the development of tertiary science education in the applied fields. He was the first extraordinary botanist in Ethiopia.

According to the United Nations Environmental Program, Tewelde Berhan had also shouldered responsibilities outside the academia; between 1972 and 1982 he led International Development Research Center – United Nations University (IDRC-UNU) sponsored research project entitled “Research and Development in Rural Settings”. In 1991, he took up the position of Director for the Ethiopian National Conservation Strategy Secretariat and developed a National Conservation Strategy in a participatory manner. In 1995, he was appointed General Manager for Ethiopia’s Environmental Protection Authority.

“Tewelde Berhan was a compassionate academician, innovative researcher and an extraordinary scientist of biodiversity”

Sebsibe Demissew

Tewelde Berhan’s international career spans from negotiator for Ethiopia and the developing countries on biodiversity and biotechnology, to Chief negotiator of the African Group, and bureau member in the revision of the international undertaking on plant genetic resources for food and agriculture; he was also chief negotiator of the African and Like-Minded Group as well as bureau member in the Biosafety Working Group negotiations on a Biosafety Protocol for the Convention on Biological Diversity.

Sebsibe Demissew, a professor of plant systematic and biodiversity at AAU and who was one of his students and then later his colleague, has shared his views about this prolific scientist with Addis Standard.

“Tewelde Berhan was a compassionate academician, innovative researcher and an extraordinary scientist of biodiversity,” Sebsibe said.

“[Some] 60 unfortunate children who had financial problems were brought up, educated by him until they managed their life independently”

Zenebe Wolla

He was generous in sharing his knowledge too; he had trained tens of thousands of students at the first, second, and third-degree levels in Addis Abeba and Asmara Universities; many of his students are currently serving their country and people in various sectors. “He is gone but not forgotten due to his extraordinary and incredible contributions,” Sebsibe said.

Tewelde Berhan was the most compassionate person who had brought up and educated more than 60 children who otherwise wouldn’t have any other support system.

There is no one who can capture the story of the late scientist than Journalist and Author Zenebe Wolla. Zenebe has authored and published a book titled “Hero of our Earth” on the life of Tewelde Berhan.

“[Some] 60 unfortunate children who had financial problems were brought up, educated by him until they managed their life independently,” Zenebe told Addis Standard.

Kindeya Gebrehiwot (Prof.), former president of Mekelle University and the spouse of one of Tewelde Berhan’s daughter, described him as a “world-class mind, an extraordinary scientist, charismatic leader, extremely human and innovative environmentalist who contributed a lot to his country, continent and the world,” Kindeya told Addis Standard.

Kindeya recalled an incident when the late scientist forgave to a person who shot him with a pistol and severely injured him while he was the president of Asmara University. “Tewelde Berhan was endowed with a kind heart, he even forgave his [shooter] and let him free from going to jail; this is one simple indication of the extent of his kindness and humanity,” a mourning Kindeya testified.

His devotion as an environmentalist and contributions to biodiversity and community rights had “benefited more than 1.4 billion farmers if we, for instance, considered each of them with average five family members; we can imagine how many people could be saved by him,” Zenebe witnessed.

Tewelde Berhan had attended various forums, negotiations including at the UK House of Commons, and given global speeches on environmental protection and ecology.

The profoundly saddened Zenebe recalled the efforts the late scientist had made to resolve the problem millions of farmers faced in productivity due to the scarcity of fertilizer. Along with his late wife, Sue Edwards, Tewelde Berhan had devoted his life to find ways of alleviating challenges of the Ethiopian peasantry in maximizing their productivity using natural compost.

“[Tewelde Berhan] persuaded the international debates that resulted in the endorsement the United Nations conventions of Biological Diversity and the Food and Agriculture Organization’s international Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture.”

Teshome Hunduma (PhD)

He presented his recommendations based on his analytical research on the production of compost fertilizer not only in a bid to reduce the foreign currency allocated by the country to buy fertilizer every year but also to benefit millions of Ethiopian farmers with the available resource in their hand, which was successfully tested in his birthplace Adwa. However, this was “the saddest side of the scientist that due to the passive response from the government of the time, it hadn’t been yet carried out. As a result, Ethiopia [continued] importing fertilizer,” Zenebe regretted.

Teshome Hunduma (PhD), Post-Doctoral Researcher at Norwegian University of Life Sciences, Norway, is another academic who poke to Addis standard on the lifelong achievements of Tewelde Berehan. He was the “chief persuasive negotiator on international forums in the 1990s and early 2000s”.

His participation were so significant at various biodiversity related fora negotiations, especially the Convention on Biological Diversity, that he managed to build a strong group of African negotiators when Africa came out with united, strong, progressive positions, Teshome said, adding that Tewelde Berhan was “unique, strongly negotiated and persuaded the international debates that resulted in the endorsement the United Nations conventions of Biological Diversity and the Food and Agriculture Organization’s international Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture”.

Many African countries are engaged in developing and implementing community rights, take a mutual position on Intellectual Property Rights, and a clear stance against patents on life due to the persuasive power of the late Tewelde Berhan, Teshome said.  The Right Livelihood website states that  “he had guided the drafting of the Organization of African Union (OAU) model legislation for community rights, which is now used as the common basis for all African countries.”

“world-class mind, an extraordinary scientist, charismatic leader, extremely human and innovative environmentalist who contributed a lot to his country, continent and the world”

Kindeya Gebrehiwot (Prof.)

Tewelde Berhan did not just go home and sleep over the knowledge and experience he got from the negotiations he led at the UN meetings, Teshome said, rather he toured universities and other institutions and eloquently lectured Africans. “Fortunately, I was among the young people willfully packed like sardines to listen to his speech at the Science Faculty of AAU”.

When we realized his explanations later, he was aware of the unfair and inequitable world, especially regarding the use and commercialization of biological resources in the globalized world; that was why he joined voices to advocate for the interests of smallholder farmers, Teshome continued. Tewelde Berhan was thrilled with the outcome of the convention and treaty negotiations related to the biological diversity that always warned the conventions might need reexamining all over again, passing the relay baton to the new generation and today. “We lost him, rest in peace,” Teshome added.

Awards

His efforts did not go unrecognized. The prizes the late Tewelde Berhan had won and received are countless but some of them deserve to be mentioned.  The most notable awards include the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) awarded “Champions of the Earth”, the Right Livelihood Award, and his recognition as one of the 50 best people in the world.

His Right Livelihood Award in 2000 was given to him for his “exemplary work to safeguard biodiversity and the traditional rights of farmers and communities to their genetic resources”.

 In 2006, Tewelde Berhan received the United Nations Champions of the Earth Award, which is given to people who have made a significant contribution to environmental protection. Besides, the AAU had also awarded Tewelde Berhan with an honorary doctorate in 1997. AS

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